Something is wrong with the way Virginia conducts its reapportionment business. The state constitution says it has to be done every 10 years. But despite this requirement, Virginia voters and legislators are still unsure of their legislative districts for the House of Delegates. After repeated attempts to redraw the boundaries, we still do not have a fully approved, acceptable plan--although the legislature met 13 times in special session in 1981 and spent an estimated $1 million.

I suggest three basic reforms: 1) reapportionment must be taken from the hands of legislators and given to an independent commission; 2) strict criteria to prevent gerrymandering must be established; and 3) the courts must conduct prompt judicial review of reapportionment plans.

Because Virginia legislators control the drawing of district lines for state legislative and congressional seats, the majority party leaders--the Democrats--use reapportionment to create safe districts. The result is that electoral competition and citizen participation are significantly reduced. For example, in the House of Delegates only 58 of 100 seats in the general election were contested, and 77 of 86 incumbents were re- elected.

To draw single-member district lines acceptable to each of the 100 legislators in the house is virtually impossible. For years, Virginia skirted the problem by drawing district lines for groups of three, four or even seven legislators. It was only after considerable pressure from courts and the Department of Justice that Virginia finally moved toward single-member districts. While this promotes greater racial equality, it makes the geographical division harder.

Sen. Ray Garland (R-Roanoke) introduced an amendment taking legislative redistricting out of the hands of the General Assembly and vesting it in a commission named by the chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court. If approved by two sessions of the legislature, the proposal could be submitted to the people for their approval, coinciding with the 1984 election. The Virginia Reapportionment Commission would be activated following the 1990 census--and would have 10 months to redistrict the state into single-member legislative districts for Congress, the State Senate and the House of Delegates.

Virginia already uses reapportionment criteria for equally populated, compact and contiguous districts. Under the amendment I plan to introduce next year, no district could have a population that varied from average population of all districts by more than 5 percent--a reasonable limit that satisfies court requirements for "one man, one vote" and allows other reapportionment criteria to be applied. Boundary lines, embracing compact and contiguous districts, would be drawn to coincide with the boundaries of political subdivisions to the extent consistent with the requirement of substantial population equality.

In addition, it would include specific anti- gerrymandering criteria. The commission would not be allowed to employ party registration data in redistricting or intentionally to divide black neighborhoods; nor would the reapportionment commission be allowed to use incumbent addresses when figuring district lines. Most important, apportionment would be done in the open, with a full public record to ensure that the criteria are followed.

Finally, to avoid the dilemma we faced in 1981, state courts need to ensure prompt judicial review for any challenges. Under my plan, any registered voter could file a petition to challenge a reapportionment plan or compel the commission to adhere to reapportionment criteria. Challenges would have to be filed within 45 days of adoption of a plan. The state supreme court would have to render a decision within 60 days. It could declare a plan invalid in whole or in part and, if it did so, would have to order the commission to prepare a new plan.

The Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s and early 1970s guaranteed substantial population equality among legislative districts, but failed to deal with the equally debilitating problem of political gerrymandering. The court has taken the view that the issue is better left to state political processes. But the present Virginia system, because of its built-in conflict of interest, doesn't work. The result has been a system of incumbent and political party self-protection that has undermined representative democracy and citizen participation in the political process.

The reapportionment amendment is designed to change this and to increase the effectiveness of representative democracy in Virginia. While reapportionment will not take place again until 1991, it is important for the General Assembly to make the reforms now--so the sorry record of 1981-82 is not repeated.